If the cover of a book is important, what of the author’s name? Keith Ridgway is saddled not only with a name which is not quite chiming with authority (and destined to be misspelled in search engines), but a cover design which aims for plain starkness and ends up boring. With Animals, he is taking his revenge on society.
To avoid demanding of you what Ridgway does of his readers, I will say straight away that Animals is one of those books, often touted but rarely with accuracy, that rewards patience. This is a novel which it is sometimes tempting to give up on, but which you will be very glad you didn’t.
It takes us into the life of an unnamed illustrator, a man of – shall we say – sensitive temperament and somewhat obsessive-compulsive tendencies. He is troubled by “the business of being in the world and how to negotiate it.” As a consequence, the story is muddled and disordered, and he keeps jumping ahead too far and then pulling us back with an explanation. The events themselves, involving a dead mouse, a collapsing swimming pool, a see-saw stacked with spiders, and a haunted building, are both banal and freakish. And the narrator is plausible until he flurries into accounts like this:
As the towel came away from my lower cheeks I noticed first a small black mark on my left cheek, adjacent to the nostril. As I instinctively leaned in toward the mirror to better see what this might be, the towel, held by my hands, continued downwards, revealing above my mouth a stuttering continuation of this black mark into larger blobs and beads and scatterings, like an ink blot on my skin. As I peered, seeing that the trail continued onto my lips, and indeed between them, and as my eyes and my involuntary tongue confirmed that these blackish reddish bluish things were not marks or traces but actually material of some description – debris – and as my independent, quick-moving tongue trapped one part of this detritus against the test surface of a tooth to discover a hard stringy grittiness, so my hands took the towel away from my neck and my eyes looked down, to confirm almost instantly what I had begun to suspect: that what littered my skin and had fallen or crawled into my mouth was the sundered parts of a large black spider, whose bulky twitching carcass was smeared across the white towel I held in my hands like the entrails of roadkill dragged across the snow.
– which neatly highlights the issue of whether all the terrible and confusing things the narrator sees are real, or
nothing more than the physical manifestation of my own fear of the real world – by which I mean the natural world, by which I mean those parts of the world that are not created and controlled by us. By mankind.
This is central to the book, which is peopled with characters alongside the narrator who make their own reality: such as David, the friend whose self-contained fantasy fiction world earns the narrator’s contempt: “You’re wasting your time. You have a wonderful talent for writing and you’re wasting it. You’re like a beetle fallen on its back. You could spend the entire rest of your life describing the clouds;” or Rachel, an artist who subverts normal understandings of reality by faking missing persons notices. And along the way the book raises issues about the purpose of art, and the uses of terrorism.
All of this makes Animals one of the most interesting, and singular, books I’ve read in ages. Even in a tradition of paranoid, delusional fiction, it is a truly novel novel, and satisfyingly disturbing. Ridgway is an admirer of Beckett, and it’s not hard to see his influence here (though Animals is rather more readable than that suggests, and the occasional longueurs are not too offputting). It’s also lightly peppered with black wit.
Another obvious comparison is Kafka, not least for the inclusion of a character, gender undeclared, named only K. But where Kafka’s protagonists are trapped in an impossible system by a faceless bureaucracy, Ridgway’s narrator finds threat and confusion in the ordinary world, the one the rest of us seem to manage in just fine. Or as he would put it, “None of this is true.”